The Rialto Theatre is located on the corner of rue Bernard and avenue du Parc, in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. It was built in 1924 and was one of thousands of ornate movie theatres built in North America at the turn of the century, at a time when films were first entering the mainstream.
These theatres were called movie palaces — a fitting title as they were defined by an over-the-top ornamental aesthetic that evoked old world grandeur. Think limestone balustrades, wrought iron railings, gold molding and red velvet curtains. Most of the movie palaces in the 1920s were built to pay homage to architectural monuments in Europe. The Rialto itself was styled after the Paris Opera House by Montreal architect Joseph Raoul Gariepy. It has been designated as a heritage site by all three levels of government and is considered by its residents to be as much a part of the fabric of Mile End as its bagel shops, cafes and madcap personalities.
The Rialto has stood mostly vacant for the past few years, while its owner, Elias Kalogeras, looked for buyers. Kalogeras had owned the theatre since 1983. During this time it underwent a number of transformations. He purchased the Rialto with hopes of turning it into a mini-Eaton Centre, but the Ministry of Culture intervened and his plans never materialized. Since then it has been a nightclub, a concert venue, a repertory theatre, and a steakhouse. Kalogeras was confronted with many of the problems owners of defunct movie palaces faced: the difficulty of successfully filling such a cavernous space while maintaining the charm of a historic building and keeping it updated to the needs of contemporary society.
Nevertheless, the Rialto has found some success as a concert venue. The Ramones, Jane’s Addiction and The Pixies are just some of the headliners who have played in the venue. In April 2010, after Kalogeras spent years trying to sell the historic property without success, local businessman Ezio Carosielli and his wife purchased it for $2.5 million. The new owners plan on turning the Rialto into a multi-platform venue for film, theatre, dance and especially music.
Mile End has been at the heart of the Montreal independent music scene since the 1990s and has been the home-base to many well-known musicians: Jean Leloup, Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, to name a few. This new venue comes at an opportune time, since the Green Room, a dive bar that used to host many of Montreal’s independent artists, burned down earlier this year.
Though many of Kalogeras’ endeavours have failed, the Rialto’s director, Jean-Paul Dubé, a former corporate real estate developer and musician better known as JP, is optimistic. “I think success is just a question of being tuned into what’s going on and understanding what’s relevant,” he says. “I think we just have to be patient and not make any bad moves. We’re not going to install a bunch of flat screen TVs, you know what I mean? We want to stay true to the neighbourhood and to the Rialto.”
Carosielli has hopes of bringing the Rialto back to its 1920s glory. The current marquee festooned with blinking light bulbs was put up in the 1940s, but photos of the Rialto from the 1920s indicate that the original marquee extended from one side of the building to the other and was surrounded by wrought iron detailing, much like the Ritz-Carlton Hotel downtown. Along with restoring the marquee, Carosielli and JP hope to reinstall around 500 seats that were removed from the balcony, install a rooftop garden and put in a geothermic heating system.
Any changes need to be approved by the municipal government, and before they can take place, the city wants Carosielli and JP to first do corrective work on the renovations the previous owner had made without a permit. In response to the extra prescriptions put forth by the government, JP strikes a conciliatory note. “They’re not antagonistic, we’re working fine with them,” he says. “The ministry of culture seems to be very open to what we’re talking about. They want to see the building used as a cultural centre and that’s what we want too. It’s just a question of, they speak a certain language and we speak a certain language. We’re going to take it one step at a time.”
In the meantime, JP is already booking shows and events for the Rialto. Currently on schedule for July are some events for the Fantasia Film Festival, from July 8th to the 28th, the band Nevermore on the 17th and 18th and a screening of a Jacques Cocteau movie with music mixed by Steve Severin, the former bassist of Siouxsie and the Banshees.
On a warm night in early June, full of the promise of summer, I paid a visit to the Rialto. The light bulbs around the marquee formed a sparkling border that illuminated the block. Smokers milled about underneath like moths by a flame. That night, The Luyas and Montreal’s Avec Pas D’Casques and The Hoof and the Heel were set to perform. Walking into The Rialto, its majesty recalls what it used to mean to go to the movies. Most of today’s crowd probably stream their films online, but they share the same sense of awe and excitement when they take in the tiered ceilings and gold molding of the foyer. During the concert, music resonated through every inch of the cavernous space and dark silhouettes danced chaotically against the inset arches of the walls.
Tags: Cinemas, Concert Venues, Mile End, Montreal, Park Avenue